Monday, October 31, 2011

Eiko Ishioka Featurette for Tarsem's "IMMORTALS"

Below is a short featurette on Eiko Ishioka, an artist I showcased in a previous post. It would be impossible to overstate her brilliance.

Friday, September 30, 2011

"VERTIGO" Envisioned: Storyboards from Alfred Hitchcock's Masterpiece

Below are a collection of storyboards from Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece "Vertigo" that utilize a breathtaking redwood grove and the brightness of day to create a haunting scene and a palpable sense of foreboding.

Here are the storyboards created for one of the most finely crafted sequences in "Vertigo." Masterful images in their own right, they showcase the brilliance of the sequence's framing and the supreme quality that comes from an artist understanding the camera's ability to paint in broad and graphic strokes.

Below is the scene as it unfolds on film.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sequential Art Primer Part 3: The Three Modern Masters and the Essential Transcontinental Chain Reaction

Robert Crumb

Jean Giraud/Moebius

Hayao Miyazaki

All three artists contributed to their regional form of ‘sequential art.’ More importantly, their work is linked together in a ‘chain reaction’ of influence that led them to create work in a very similar stylistic language that marks a significant evolution of ‘sequential arts’ aesthetic as a global form. Starting with Rober Crumb’s work in ‘comics’ in the ‘60s, continuing with the 'bande-dessineé' work of Jean Giraud/Moebius’ in the ‘70s, and ending with the 'manga' work of Hayao Miyazaki in the ‘80s.

R. Crumb’s gift as an artist is a quality that many would consider a flaw. Crumb seemed to lack any ability to filter himself in his work. The other gift that Crumb possesses is an inability to stop. As an artist, R. Crumb’s significance was not the result of an objective to become important or to create work that was original or independent, but rather an incredible capacity to bear his soul and be authentic. With such work in “Comics” like “Zap Comix” his cross-contour drawing style and perspective as and artist is evocative, offensive, neurotic, and revealing. He was provocative without being a deliberate “provocateur.”

While I consider George Herriman to be the true innovator of some of Crumb’s linguistics, in the 1960’s, Crumb’s evolution of his cross contour style combined with his boldness of subject makes him an essential figure in the evolution of “Comics,” and “sequential art.’

R. Crumb’s influence can e seen in the evolution of Jean Giraud’s alter ego “Moebius” and his ‘bande desinée’ work of the 1970’s where he expresses aspects of his inner psychology across the surreal fantasy landscape of “Arzach” in an echo of the Crumb style and with a clear sense of newfound liberation. After Crumb, what ideas should sequential art fear expressing? What need is there to strive for perfection in one’s draftsmanship once such a skill becomes as easy for the artist as switching on a light?

Moebius’ “Arzach” uses a fantasy landscape to express the personal in metaphor. The landscape and inhabitants of “Arzach” create an eerily cohesive world, no matter how bizarre, as a direct result of being manifestations of the many facets of Moebius’ psyche that he now feels emboldened to express. The hatching on the hand-lettering, the wonky panel borders and use of circular frames show a new sense of freedom applied to a dreamscape that are echoes of Crumb.

Moebius’ use of metaphor offers accessibility to the audience that Crumb’s more raw and personal explorations deny. Metaphor translates the personal to the universal and allows the audience to access the work on two levels of depth. “Arzach’s” aesthetic is the precursor to Hayao Miyazaki’s move away from the stylistics of Osamu Tezuka, and toward the freeing and more primal cross contour mark-making of Crumb and Moebius with his 1980’s ‘manga’ work “Nausicaä.” Elements of “Arzach” and “Nausicaä” share many similarities in much the same way that “Arzach” shares similarities with R. Crumbs pioneering “Zap Comix.”

The quality that seems to be driving Hayao Miyazaki’s work forward at this point is the contagious feeling of liberation that comes from giving one’s self permission to draw without the concern for your work being free of imperfections and rawness. In “Nausicaä,” Miyazaki’s desire to reconnect with mythology and the natural landscape within the context of a society increasingly seduced by the allure of technology is depicted in a fantasy world that assimilates both.

Familiar elements of architectural style, means of flight, and otherworldly cultures and creatures that appear in “Arzach” can be seen in “Nausicaä” and, more significantly, its illustration technique owes much more to the tradition of 'bande dessinée' than those traditionally associated with 'manga.'

Friday, June 17, 2011

Sensei, My Sensei: Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood"

What can I say about Sensei Akira Kurosawa that has not already been said, and in all honesty said more intelligently and more eloquently than anything I might offer. Sensei change my life with his work, and in particular, with his adaptation of my favorite play by William Shakespeare, Macbeth. Kumonosu-jō (蜘蛛巣城), meaning "Spider Web Castle", which was retitled "Throne of Blood" is my favorite Kurosawa film. It was a stylistic experiment for Sensei at the time in terms of its stylistic nods to Japanese Noh (a masked theatrical performance style dating back to the 1400's).

There is so much I could say about this film, but I would prefer you experience it for yourself. The set design, the use of mist for atmospheric depth and composition, and the performances of Toshirō Mifune and Isuzu Yamada are all sublime and have been seared into my consciousness.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders: Exploring the Future and Challenging the Past (Part 1)

When students ask me to assess the current state of contemporary storytelling and articulate the greatest threat to storytelling as a whole, I never cite the external mechanistic "usual suspects." I think it is very easy to perceive threats from outside of ourselves: corporations, studios, a lack of audience sophistication, etc. as the most immediate threats to the art of storytelling.

Espousing these things is a cliché of response (however popular) and this line of thinking is undercut by the realities of an ever-changing system of financial resources, delivery mechanisms, demographics, and zeitgeist. There is no attempt, in citing these examples, to explore the overarching concepts that speak to the threat posed by some of the human psyche's most dangerous tendencies when telling stories. It's not unlike addressing humanity's preoccupation with mortality by studying bodies at the morgue and determining the cause of death. If humanity's preoccupation with our mortality could be addressed by a technical analysis of biological material and physical causes, the subject could be easily put to rest by means as simple as the definition of death that Wikipedia provides: "Death is the termination of the biological functions that sustain a living organism." There would be no need for spiritual or philosophical inquiry or the creation of art and narrative exploring human mortality. Identifying the real threats to storytelling as a vital art form depends more on an understanding of the human psyche than on an analysis of industry's mechanisms and the perceived shortcomings of "the masses."

I would identify two of the greatest threats to storytelling as the following: the over emphasis on nostalgic reflection and the fear of the future.

Storytelling must offer us a way forward, and effective storytelling is never about nostalgia for the past. If the past is effective in storytelling it is only because it speaks to and offers solutions for the reality we are living in the present.

Two artists, out of an exceptional many, who confront these threats are Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders. I am citing them specifically because, in the two major works they have co-directed, they have directly confronted the perils of romanticizing a nostalgic past and the futility of fighting the inevitable change that comes with the future. More importantly, the two examples of their work I will cite were created within large corporations and directed at one of the more convenient targets of the cynical storyteller's ire: the "family film" audience.

"Lilo and Stitch" (Walt Disney Feature Animation, 2002) and "How to Train Your Dragon" (Dreamworks Animation, 2010) are prime examples of narratives wherein the characters succeed triumphantly after grappling with a love of tradition and the past, only to realize that they are trapped by many of its dogmatic perceptions and arbitrary temporal artifacts. In this post, I'll explore how "Lilo and Stitch" accomplishes this.

In "Lilo and Stitch" the crisis that Lilo Pelekai and her big sister Nani find themselves in is caused as a direct result of the conflict between their desire for a successful life after the loss of their parents, and their desire to cling to what remains of the life they knew before their parents died. After their parents die in a car accident (hinted at in the movie), the two sisters struggle to maintain what's left of their past life by living in their parents home and attempting to live as if nothing has happened. As a result of this, they are wilting under the weight of the past.

The metaphors in this film (however unintentional or intentional) are so rooted in mythology and psychology it is astounding. Joseph Campbell would have been pleased.

At the opening of the film, Lilo is swimming in the water of the ocean (a metaphor for her unconscious self) off the shores of Hawaii where she lives and where the story takes place. The use of an island as the film's setting is an appropriate metaphor for the isolation Lilo feels. She is in the ocean to feed a fish(a metaphor for the power of life within her) she has named "Pudge"and she is feeding it the wrong food (a sandwich) which mirrors her feeding of her own unconscious self. When she arrives late to dance class dripping with the water of her metaphorical swim, she tries to join the ritual dance (a metaphor of social harmony) and she causes the other young dancers to slip and fall.  When Lilo tries to explain to the teacher why feeding "Pudge" is so important, she states, "Pudge controls the weather" ("weather" is a common metaphor for emotional state).  What Lilo needs, is to understand the unique and authentic power within her that is manifest at first by a crude doll she has made named "Scrump" and finally as the alien "Stitch" known as "experiment 626" (6 and two 6's would give us 666). When her friends express their negative view of the doll, she initially rejects it, but finds herself running to embrace it. Likewise, when her older sister Nani rejects Stitch, she does the same.

Nani, her big sister is a prisoner of the new adult duties she assumes when her parents die. She is incapable of fulfilling those duties and so she is deemed a failure as an adult, and at the same time she is unable to express her needs as a young woman that are represented by the character of her romantic interest "David." When Nani fights with Lilo after a disastrous visit by the social worker (male parental authority figure) named "Cobra Bubbles" (snakes being a metaphor for change agents as they shed their old skin to welcome the new), Lilo asks her sister, "Then why don't you sell me and buy a rabbit instead?" Rabbits are a common metaphor for reproductive capacity, which, in this case is a metaphor for Nani choosing to pursue David, a much more appealing option for companionship to Nani than caring for her troubled little sister.

At the climax of the film, Nani leaves Lilo in the house to go off with David, and this results in its destruction, a painful event that is necessary for the two sisters to break from the past. At the same time, Lilo's family photo of Nani, Lilo, and their parents is damaged. The picture that has been a sacred object and metaphor for the reverence for the old social order (which its square format connotes), is kept under her pillow and clearly symbolizes her desire to go backwards to the past and as a result, eliminates any real chance for her to seize the opportunities of the unpredictable future. By the film's end, the two sisters (with the help of new friends) build a new house, and Lilo utilizes a damaged corner of the photo to add in "Stitch" to the photo. By using the the empty space as an opportunity to expand her world, Lilo metaphorically illustrates how the tragedy she experienced in the past has also opened the door to a future that brings with it new opportunities for happiness.

In the film, there is a menagerie of alien characters that serve as both specific metaphors as individual characters, as well as being used collectively as a metaphor for the unknown potentialities of the future. For the characters of Lilo and Nani, they have their psyche's "shadow" manifest as specific aliens. Lilo's traumatic loss of her parents has been repressed rather than assimilated and it has poisoned all of her future actions. She feels as though she is designed "to wreck things" and that she "can never belong." Stitch is the metaphor for these twisted capacities. After arriving on Earth, Stitch has his first encounter with one of our planet's inhabitants, a frog. The frog is often used as a metaphor for change as the frog undergoes a dramatic metamorphosis in its lifecycle. The frog is so important as a metaphor for change that it comes to the rescue in the film's climax.

Nani is frustrated by her inability to maintain the responsibilities she has inherited from her parents. She feels like a failure in her duties, and she sees Lilo's inability to "fit in" and succeed as the greatest example of that failure. Rather than confront those fears, she directs her frustration at Lilo, and in doing so, Nani fails to address the underlying problems by attempting to suppress Lilo's behavior. Her horrific first encounter with a being that she immediately identifies as an alien is "Captain Gantu," who captures Lilo and threatens to take her away. The horror resulting from that moment is that Nani realizes that not having Lilo to take care of has been her secret desire all along. By seeing her "shadow," manifest in reality, she is forced to realize what a horrific and painful desire she harbors.

Nani has been struggling to keep her sister from being taken away by the social worker(Cobra Bubbles) largely because Lilo is all she has left of her family, but under the surface she also desires the freedom of young adulthood that Lilo forces her to neglect. This paradox is illustrated when Stitch drags Lilo underwater (again, a metaphor for the unconscious self) when they are surfing and Nani kicks Stitch away while attempting to save her sister, in essence leaving that part of her to die. Nani only wishes to save the part of her sister she identifies as valuable. It is David who 'fishes' Stitch out of the ocean(wearing a neclace with a hook on it around his neck).

By the film's end, the two authority figures, one male(Cobra Bubbles) and one female("The Grand Councilwoman"), come together to redefine the family as only judge/authority figures can and in doing so allow the sisters to see both the possibilities of their present lives and the vitality of the future. This future, which dwarfs the painful terrestrial tragedy of losing their parents with the infinity of the cosmos, has many valuable and unimaginable possibilities that they now see evidence of. This realization also offers them the ability to see all of the possibilities that were around them from the start of the film that living in the past had made inaccessible to them.

What started out as a desire by DeBlois and Sanders to tell a small, intimate and unconventional story, like the ones told in films like "Dumbo," led to the creation of a film that challenges convention and teaches the audience the value of embracing the "undiscovered country." The frequently espoused ideals of progressive contemporary storytellers such as: placing female characters in the leading roles, diversifying the definition of the term "family" to be more inclusive, and creating stories featuring characters of color are all present in "Lilo and Stitch." At the same time the story is unafraid to show these characters as flawed and therefore human, and the film includes a scene of a young Lilo attacking a classmate in a rage motivated by the unresolved trauma of losing her parents. The film also makes us see the beauty of a child that values what many would label "ugly" or "unlovable." All of this is accomplished in a film told by two artists working under the banner of an immense multinational corporation. I suspect that these aspects of the film are merely the product of DeBlois and Sanders' authenticity as artists and that the vision and voice we see in the film reflects their appreciation of the complexity and nuance present in the world around them, as well as their understanding of the finer points of the craft of storytelling.


In a future post I will continue my analysis of DeBlois and Sanders' work by examining their film "How to Train Your Dragon." In particular, how that film uses mythology, metaphor and psychology to illustrate the value of exploring new possibilities and the importance of confronting one's metaphorical "dragon." In particular, we will explore how DeBlois and Sanders define the term "dragon" in accordance with Joseph Campbell's definition of the "European Dragon"(a metaphor for the binding of one's self to one's ego).

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

4 Artists Paint 1 Tree: A Walt Disney 'Adventure in Art'

This short subject shows how Walt Disney Productions artists Marc Davis, Eyvind Earle, Josh Meador, and Walt Peregoy approach the painting of a single tree, and it offers valuable insights into their individual working methods.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Sequential Art Primer Part 2: The Second "Tongue" of "Sequential Art" and the Essential Iconoclast

“Sequential art” is a form of visual communication that has three distinct pillars and after discussing comics, bandes dessinées, and manga as well as the masters of those pillars, any serious student of "sequential art" should continue their study beyond these three regional inflections with the artist I like to refer to as “The Iconoclast of Sequential Art,” George Herriman.

Words fall short when describing the enigmatic artist who burst forth from the region of America that also contributed to the richness of the country’s musical landscape with Jazz. George Herriman, the creator of the classic comic work “KrazyKat,” possessed many of the attributes that would have allowed him to be successful creating conservative work that used the existing conventions of the form.

George Herriman, however, had other plans. Herriman, who possessed a fertile and free mind, much like those musicians whose explorations led to the birth of Jazz, became the preeminent force behind the linguistic innovation we call "cartooning."

George Herriman's "KRAZY KAT"

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sequential Art Primer Part 1: The Three Pillars of 'Sequential Art' and the Essential Masters

Sequential Art

‘Sequential art’ is a visual storytelling form that has long been a part of human civilization. In the last century, it has been a versatile means for the telling of stories and artistic exploration. Recently, the decline of the American ‘comic’ in culture has been the subject of a lot of debate in the creative community, “industry”, and among the dwindling audience of readers.

Most of the theories, for the decrease in the size of the audience tend to overemphasize the obstacles the form faces when competing against more modern forms of storytelling and neglect the fact that the 'sequential art' storyteller has never, in the history of mankind, had a more direct line to the audience of the world. The task of showcasing one's work, promoting it, and making it available for order directly to the public has never been easier. In addition, ‘sequential art's’ unique ability to go anywhere and say anything has only been hindered in the past by a combination of manufacturing cost, regulation, and distribution monopolies that are eroding before our very eyes.

It may be that it has been far too long since the audience in the United States has been reminded of the vitality ‘sequential art’ is capable of. It is equally possible that the young creators of today's 'sequential art' have been divorced from the form's history, which is as rich as any other form of art. By studying this history, these creators may find inspiration in the work of a kindred spirit not only from another country but from another era as well.

The aim of this post is to offer a starting point for future storytellers and makers of 'sequential art' to begin their exploration.

There are three forms of modern ‘sequential art’ that constitute its pillars: ‘comics’, ‘manga’, and ‘bande dessinée’. These three forms are the most significant stylistic variations in ‘sequential art,’ and have evolved as the result of diverging regional tastes, innovation, and distinct cultural perspectives.

Storytellers of the modern era have been cross pollinating these approaches for many years now, and while that is encouraging in what it affirms about global society, it has also led to stylistic artifacts being adopted and used with little or no understanding of where they originated. The ‘comic’ has been greatly diminished by its inability to meet the needs of the modern audience and reconnect with its rich history and let go conventions that are the artifacts of a bygone zeitgeist.

Below is an introduction to artists whom I would offer as the most essential to study from each of the three pillars of 'sequential art.'


‘Comics’ is the name of the art form that was established in the United States with the ‘comic strip,’ and popularized the combining of the word balloon with sequential pictures in the early 20th century. ‘Comics’ began in newspapers and these ‘comic strips’ were eventually collected in ‘comic books.’ By the 1930’s, ‘comic books’ of original material began to appear. Eventually these books were published in albums called ‘graphic novels,’ and just as with ‘comic books,’ original graphic novels of long format stories are now created. Modern day sequential art produced in the United States lacks diversity of subject matter and is geared toward a small audience that is more a ‘subculture’ than ‘culture’ as a whole. Most of the prominent characters that were created in ‘comics’ are not closely associated in the public’s mind with the creators who created them, with the exception of a handful of ‘comic strip’ characters.

While it is difficult to hold up any one artist as being the most essential to study in a given art form, I would offer Winsor McCay as the first true master of modern ‘sequential art’ and ‘comics.’ Winsor McCay made his name using an entire page of a newspaper as his canvas and creating “Little Nemo in Slumberland” in the early 1900’s. With these weekly full-color installments, he created the first major benchmark to measure all future works against. After a century, his imagination, craftsmanship, and innovative storytelling devices make him essential reading in the study of ‘comics.’


Bande Dessinée

‘Bande dessinée' is the term applied to European sequential art (originally it referred to Franco-Belgium work specifically), and is distinctive for its high production value, larger ‘tabloid’ format, high panel-per-page quantity, an average page count of around 48 pages, and a longer turnaround time between issues. The origin of the form is very similar to that of ‘comics’ and the term ‘bande dessiné’ literally means ‘drawn strip’ as a result of this shared history. The art form addresses a large percentage of the audience in Europe, and it is regarded as an art form and artists are closely associated with the characters they create. While successful characters from titles that are no longer being continued due to the retirement or death of the creator are still being merchandised, much like fiction writer/creators, the idea of continuing a prominent character’s story without the creator is frowned upon by the audience.

In ‘bande dessinée,’ Belgium’s Georges Remi, known by his pen name Hergé, created a body of work that still resonates today in the form of his 24 volumes of “Les Adventures de Tintin.” Hergé was similar in the way he spoke to the audience of his day by evolving his art’s visual clarity and creating a style that became known as ‘ligne claire’ (clean line), while doing meticulous research of locations to transport the audience.

Below is the elegant title image from “Tintin au Tibet” which showcases the production value and craftsmanship seen in ‘bande dessinée,’ as well as one of the most memorable pages in the entire series of “Les Adventures de Tintin” from the same volume.



Japanese ‘sequential art,’ called ‘manga,’ is diverse in subject matter. The books tend to be black and white, unlike ‘bandes dessinées’ and ‘comics’ and are produced in small scale and thick volumes, sometimes with the creator/artist of the book having multiple assistants. Like ‘bandes dessinées’ the creators of particular characters are equally integral to those characters in the public’s mind. Manga books are fully integrated into Japanese culture, and are unique to the other two art forms in the way they are written and illustrated to be read from the right to the left. Historically, Manga were more innovative in their use of dynamic page layouts and in the depiction of all things kinetic.

Manga’s most important artist is by far the easiest to proclaim, because he stands utterly undisputed. Osamu Tezuka, created a cast of characters and body of work that rivals the entire catalogue of corporate institutions in the United States that have spent decades acquiring characters and works from hundreds of artists. Tezuka innovated a style, a visual language, and produced more ‘sequential art’ than Winsor McCay and Hergé combined.


Of the artists mentioned above, Winsor McCay is the only artist that does not have a museum dedicated to his life and work in his home country, in spite of the fact that he also played an equally crucial role in the creation of modern animation.

Exterior MUSÉE HERGÉ in Belgium


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labrynth

There are so many instances in the film "Pan's Labrynth" wherein Guillermo del Toro creates an immaculate reality that avoids aesthetic styling in favor of creating rich visual metaphor. To quote the director in the equally brilliant audio commentary, "It isn't 'eye candy,' it is eye protein!"

Below are a collection of sketchbook pages drawn by Guillermo del Toro, and it is easy to see that the brilliance of the film is fueled by the director's ability to express himself with image as well as word. I highly recommend this film. It is a nearly flawless example of the power of myth and metaphor, and I have seldom seen a DVD or Blu-ray release that is as educational in its documentaries and commentary.

Special thanks to artist and friend Andrew Fogel for alerting me to the article in "The New Yorker."